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Alaska Road Trippin’
Tailgate Alaska and Thompson Pass with the AKA Boys
By Obadiah Jenkins and Tom Fredericks
Way up north in Alaska, there’s a little town where the wind blows across vast glaciers and up mountains so large that simply calling them big doesn’t do them justice. They make big seem small and the snowfall is measured in feet instead of inches. The place is Valdez and like many other Alaskan fishing towns, it lives by the motto “we’re a drinking town with a fishing problem.” Nestled between the Chugach Mountains and Prince William Sound, Valdez is also home to something very special, a mountain festival like no other. Each spring, the town comes alive with incredible talents of world-class athletes similar to the winter Olympics, except we have kegs, reggae music, far fewer cameras, and much less stress.
The Tailgate Alaska Festival attracts the world’s best big mountain snowboarders, skiers, snowmachiners, snow kiters, paragliders, and speed riders who descend on the legendary Thompson Pass located north of Valdez to put their skills to the ultimate test. Not against each other, or even against themselves, but against the Chugach Mountains that call us all there every year.
It’s the last week of March and Steve Carr is throwing more toys into his trailer than you would imagine could fit. A snow machine (called a snowmobile in the lower 48, but nobody here would ever use that term), paramotor and wing, arctic oven, firewood, skis and snowboards, enough kites to equip a small army, barbeque, wind socks, and kegs; the list goes on and on of the gear he manages to cram in there. This is our third road trip to Thompson Pass this winter, and Steve has got it dialed. Our previous trip up there had been overshadowed by Alaskan weather. It snowed over 80” (more than 6.5 feet!) in three days and buried our event, the Thompson Pass Snowkite Festival, beneath the drifts. Our bonfires and firework displays were beautifully blown around by the wind and driving snow as participants huddled together upwind of the flying sparks and colorful explosions.
This road trip back to Thompson Pass was called to action on account of Nick Perata and Mark Sullivan, snowboarding legends and pioneers of big mountain snowboarding. Nick and Mark invited the Alaska Kite Adventures crew, AKA, to be a part of Tailgate Alaska. Tailgate Alaska is a gathering of a unique community that spans the globe to the farthest patches of snow and craggy mountains. This event and this place have brought us all together. At Tailgate, so many talented athletes from different disciplines find themselves in the same place with lots of Redbull and even more powder! This was the perfect place at the perfect time for us.
The King of the Hill is the main event and features snowboarders from every walk of life competing in a big mountain freestyle competition that allows them to go as big as they can dream. There’s more interest in bragging rights and fueling each other’s stoke than the actual prize money. It’s quite a sight to see as the likes of Travis Rice and Shawn Farmer try to one-up each other in a game of chance and remarkable skill down a 4000’ cliff-laden mountain. This amazing game is the actual event, and it’s awesome to witness. Unfortunately (or fortunately for us), the wind was blowing during the King of the Hill last year, so most of the AKA crew passed up the chance to watch the event to do a little riding of our own.
Kiting in Thompson Pass is like kiting in a playground unlike anything else in the world. A slim road carves its way through the Chugach giants wearing hanging glaciers and capped with corniced ridges. Access is what makes this place so special. Having a road through the pass and a town 30 minutes away has opened the floodgates for mountain recreationists. Every conceivable method of recreating in big mountains was in attendance and everyone was playing hard. It seemed like we were always kiting while we were there. Every day had its memorable kiting experiences and stories to be told around the stove in the yurt village that evening. It wasn’t always under bluebird skies and the wind wasn’t always steady, but the wind we had was memorable and the powder was epic.
Living out of and traveling in an RV is the way to go in Thompson Pass. An RV is also the perfect base for any Alaskan kiting road trip. AKA has been leading such road trips each spring for the past few years, and we have found that the Alaska circuit is full of options matching every desire and condition. The road to Valdez alone passes so many potential kiting areas that we may never get to kite them all, but we’re sure going to try! Snow machines make the perfect supplement to any kiter’s access, as well as for safety and film opportunities, and provide a great option for down-day recreation. Of course, with a good snow machine and a good guide, there won’t be any down days!
There was a lot of kiting talent that joined us for the road trip up to Thompson Pass. Jake Buzianis and Oliver Palmers were trippin’ with us representing Best Kiteboarding. Later, the famous and talented Chasta from Ozone would join us and school us on just what can be done while kiting in big mountains. Of course, the infamous AKA crew and lots of locals and delinquents spent plenty of time thrashing around the pass living on the wind and powder. With so many kiters and other recreationists in the same area, you would think the place would have a claustrophobic quality to it. On the contrary, the immense size of the pass allowed everyone their own zone and epic places to play relatively undisturbed.
Notable outings during our 16-day road trip included Tom Fredericks’s birthday exploratory mission on the terrain-filled eastern shoulder of Loveland Peak. The solo ascents, powder turn filled descents, and big glides done on and off of Little Odyssey made for an unforgettable day. Of course, who could forget the day six of us rallied up a 27-mile-long glacier into the upper bowls of Loveland peak covering over 2800’ vertical in a matter of minutes, and then playing our way up and down over its features and powder stashes all bluebird day.
There was also some amazing blizzard kiting in extremely limited visibility, which is always fun, and some sweet gliding sessions off the hills by the DOT station and across the lake in the pass. Every time we visit Thompson Pass, we find new zones that will work in any and all wind conditions, routes by snow machines that allow access to remote places you could only dream about, and we meet more awesome and talented outdoorsy folks like ourselves, many of which are now friends and kiters.
Everyone in the pass was just trying to tap into their perfect day, to find that perfect line or natural feature. We were all feeding on that stoke and pushing each other to go bigger or try that new trick. The stoke was flowing across many different cultures and sports. This event had its share of injury and hardship, challenge and misfortune, but it was the way everyone handled things together and with a positive attitude that kept the party alive and the people dancing. Thanks to everyone who rallied to help me when I (Obadiah) broke three vertebrae on a snow machine driving off a cornice in flat light. I guess I was lucky to have so many friends around, but maybe I was just lucky the wind wasn’t blowing and everyone had nothing else to do.
This coming spring will be similar to the many wonderful springs before it. The AKA crew will be on the road finding new places and ripping up to the old places to push our sport as far as we know how. The Thompson Pass Snowkite Festival (TPSKF) will be held again as a part of the Tailgate Alaska Festival in the beginning of April 2011 along with the King of the Hill and the World Extreme Freeskiing Championship (WESC). This spring, we are also trying to bring together the world’s best snowkiters in the first ever World Extreme Big Mountain Freestyle Snowkite Championship. From the entire AKA crew, we would love to see you in the pass.
Tailgate Alaska/Thompson Pass Snowkite Festival/North American Snowkite Tour Finals
March 26- April 10, 2011
An end of winter extreme sports base camp will be set up in Thompson Pass this coming spring and it’s shaping up to be a huge event. The World Extreme Ski Championships and the King of the Hill Snowboard challenge will be happening during the Thompson Pass Snowkite Festival and the North American Snowkite Tour Finals. The World’s best skiers and snowboarders will get rare and unique exposure to snowkiting. This will be a chance for the best snowkiters in the world to demonstrate the amazing potential our sport has to offer as an alternative to the normal. Big Mountain Freestyle and Big Mountain Kitercross will be featured events. Alaska Kite Adventures will be offering instruction and snow machine assistance.
For More Information:
Thompson Pass Fact File
Location: Thompson Pass is located 27 miles north of Valdez, AK
Accommodations: Best Western Valdez (http://www.valdezharborinn.com), Mountain Sky Hotel (907-835-4445), Totem Inn (http://www.toteminn.com)
RV Rentals (Anchorage): ABC Motorhome (http://www.ABCMotorhome.com), B&B Moterhome rentals (http://www.bnbrv.com)
Airports: Ted Stevens International, Anchorage (5 1/2 hour drive east to Valdez), Valdez Airport (30 minutes south of Thompson Pass)